Daytime TV: States of mind

The asylum was used to house inconvenient truths, says Gary Day, but some people do need its sanctuary

May 27, 2010

We don't have honour killing in Britain. This is a humane society. If a young girl fell pregnant out of wedlock in the early years of the 20th century, she wouldn't be shot, stabbed, strangled or suffocated; she'd be confined to an insane asylum, often for the rest of her life (Mental: A History of the Madhouse, BBC Four, Monday 17 May, 9pm). Perhaps she was ignorant? Perhaps she'd been seduced? It didn't matter. Sexual desire was a sign of mental instability. Hah! It's a wonder we're not all locked up.

Being unable to cope was another reason you could be locked away. And being dissatisfied with your lot in life. As late as the 1960s Jean Davison was thought to need treatment because she didn't want to work in a factory. She recalled her first impression of High Royds in West Yorkshire. It was dusk, the sky was red. The hospital reared up in front of her like a Gothic castle. This was Bronte country, remember.

The doctors gave Jean drugs. While under the influence of Largactil she was persuaded to give her consent to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). I am still trying to work out the logic of that. The patient was supposed not to be able to use her reason, but was given a substance to suppress her rational faculty, making it easier to manipulate her into agreeing to a procedure that would restore her reason. Who, you began to wonder, was on drugs?

When they first used ECT, there was no anaesthetic. Nurses would be stationed round the patient. One holding the ankles, another the knees and a third pressing down on the shoulders. But they couldn't prevent even the thinnest man in a striped nightshirt from half rising and clawing the air as the volts went through him.

The cure - if you can call it that - was almost as brutal as the care - if you can call it that. Derek McCarthy, a former nurse, recalled how a colleague smacked a blind man across the back of the head, sending him sprawling across the room. His justification? "If you live among shit, you become shit." A knowledge of circumstances doesn't mean we can transcend them.

Jean rebelled. She pretended to take her pills. She never felt better. "I'd almost forgotten what it was like to be awake and alive." A common condition, I suspect. Jean was lucky. She lost only five years of her life. Joan Tugwell lost 33 of hers. One of the things she suffered from was claustrophobia. So she was incarcerated in an institution. There was nothing to do for years at a time. She asked a nurse if she could help make beds. One day she found some spirits and got drunk. They put her in a padded cell.

Gradually, attitudes began to change. Inmates were no longer shut up all day. They wandered along corridors, like Jane Eyre. Sometimes they heard screams, which might have come from themselves. But there was one shot of them dancing in a ring, like children.

It was Mrs Thatcher who finally closed the asylums. Well, she'd closed the mines, the shipyards and the steelworks. So why not? Besides, it costs money to look after people. "Thank you for all you've done," said a woman to a nurse helping her pack. "Thank you." Behind her was a man crying. There was a lot of talk about care in the community. But if there was one thing true of Thatcher's Britain, it was that there was very little community.

There was also a lot of talk about patients "sharing in the individualism of the times". Hum. Interesting. It seems British society was - indeed is - suffering from a severe case of split personality. It fondly imagines that it is based on giving people the chance to express themselves, to be creative, to contribute to the culture at large when in fact it demands conformity. Self-division is the norm and the lie is necessary for the survival of truth.

Sectioned (BBC Four, Wednesday 19 May, 9pm) followed three men, Andrew, Anthony and Richard, as they struggled to come to terms with their condition. Richard's was by far the worst. He hears voices. They belong to the Gods. They have told him not to tidy his flat, not to brush his teeth and to kill himself on Christmas day.

Richard's delusions show that there is such a thing as insanity. And it is not romantic. And it is not rebellious. And it is not a divination of truth. It is isolating, frightening and deeply distressing. But there is hope. All the men were shown getting a little better. Would that we could say the same of politicians' fantasies. What was it Beckett said? We are all born mad. Some remain so.

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